“The only thing more terrifying than the last 12 minutes of this film…are the first 83 minutes.” So proclaims the ad campaign for Suspiria, Dario Argento’s Gothic horror that is often cited as one of the scariest movies ever made. The film tells the story of Suzy Bannion, a young woman who travels to a prestigious European dance academy and soon becomes suspicious that her teachers may well be a coven of witches. It’s a tour de force of dazzling colour, cacophonic sound and brutal violence that has had horror aficionados in awe since its release in 1977.
The part of Bannion was taken by Jessica Harper, fresh from her role in Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise. The young actress went on to star in a couple of Woody Allen films (Love & Death, Stardust Memories), the big screen adaptation of Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, the Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment and more recently in Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi epic Minority Report. Despite her performances in these classic films, it is Suspiria for which she is most fondly remembered by horror fans. How did she first get the part? “Dario had seen me in Phantom Of The Paradise and was interested in me on that basis… we met, and the rest is history.”
Argento is known as a visual director, and is quoted as saying he is more interested in architecture than the actors he is slaying in front of it. How was he with his actors? “He was fine with me,” Jessica replies. “I never had the sense that he preferred the buildings in the shot to my presence!” In fact she found him completely the opposite. “Dario was wonderful, passionate, very clear about his vision, intelligent and kind. He knew exactly what he wanted.”
At this stage of his career, Argento had already given us a succession of Giallo thrillers including The Bird With The Crystal Plumage, Cat ‘o’ Nine Tails, Four Flies On Grey Velvet and Deep Red, but Suspiria was his first supernatural horror film. His films were big hits in Europe but Harper, not a fan of the genre, was not aware of the director’s work. “I was not a horror film fan. I’m still not. I don’t like to pay money to be scared! It’s not an emotion I’m comfortable with. I’d rather be amused or touched in other ways but I appreciate the artistry of certain directors of the genre, including Dario, of course.”
One fascinating thing about Suspiria is the way that the international cast (which included actors from all over Europe) often spoke their own language when filming. It’s a who’s who of European cinema: the legendary Udo Kier appears next to Argento’s then-wife Daria Nicolodi; Joan Bennett, star of the original Father Of The Bride and We’re No Angels, stars next to Stefania Casini, who appeared in Warhol’s Bad and Paul Morrissey’s Blood For Dracula. Argento later dubbed the film. It must have been wonderful as a young actress to appear in this cultural melting pot? “It was an experience,” Harper says. “Udo Kier was charming, very nice. It was also wonderful working with Joan Bennett. She was great, a pure product of the forties, and from the style of movie making that I love.”
Despite her stated dislike of the horror genre, it is where she started her film career. Harper made her film debut in Brian De Palma’s Phantom Of The Paradise, a horror musical based on the classic Phantom Of The Opera. She played the object of obsession for the bird-masked phantom, who belted out some stomping numbers in the cult favourite. The film predates The Rocky Horror Picture Show with its combination of horror and rock ‘n’ roll, and wasn’t the huge success that it should have been. Harper, however, really shone as Phoenix, the beauty who killed the beast. Taking the lead is a big responsibility for any actor, let alone on your first try out. “The pressure of starring in my first movie was pretty great, of course. But it was a fun shoot, with lots of nice people – especially [actor] Bill Finley – so that eased the pain considerably!”
Brian De Palma is another director who isn’t known for his skill with actors, but Harper doesn’t agree. “He was great, funny, smart, and able to elicit good performances.” As De Palma told the Filmmakers Newsletter in 1975, Harper was exactly what he was looking for. “She had a kind of haunting image that I really liked. I didn’t want a gutsy Janis Joplin-type who’d burn up the screen. And also, in horror movies, all the girls are sort of passive girls on pedestals. So I deliberately kept her pretty and sweet. Of course, she also sang well!”
Having worked with many of the world’s finest directors – including Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Argento and De Palma – Harper is hard pushed deciding on a career highlight. “I love Stardust Memories, Pennies From Heaven, Suspiria and Phantom, but I’m not sure I have a favourite.”
Harper is now concentrating on children’s books and music rather than her acting career. What drew the actress to this new avenue in her career? “I had children, two girls, close together, and when they were younger I was inspired to write songs and later, books for them,” Harper explains. “I wanted to be there for them, not on location somewhere, so the books and music provided a nice creative, interactive outlet for me, something I could share with them and enjoy creating at the same time.”
Suspiria is screening at Cremorne’s Orpheum Picture Palace on Friday, July 14; and Adelaide’s GU Film House as part of the Monster Fest Travelling side Show on Sunday, July 23. Click through for tickets.